My Prayer Ritual

Grace-Eric Engstrom

Grace, Eric Engstrom

When I pray for someone who is sick, I hold her in my heart and lift her spirit up to God. But when I am praying for fifty people, as I often do, there’s the risk of getting distracted at approximately person number fifteen, and then my prayer becomes rote. It’s more like taking attendance than engaging in a sacred act of love and submission. Rather than rejoicing in God’s salvation and emerging from prayer joyful and refreshed, I rush to get the praying over with so I can move on to the next task on my to-do list.

Thus I always begin my morning prayer with this bit of scripture from the Book of Romans (chapter 8, verse 26):

The Spirit helps us in our weakness, for we do not know how to pray as we ought, but the Spirit himself makes intercession for us with groanings that cannot be expressed in speech.

Then I pray, using the Lord’s Prayer as a sort of outline:

Our Father, who art in Heaven—God, present with me at this time and in this place…

Hallowed be thy name. Praise the Lord, O my soul. All that is within me, praise your holy name. Praise the Lord, O my soul, and forget not all your benefits. You forgive all my sins and heal all my diseases; you redeem my life from the pit and crown me with love and compassion. You satisfy my desires with good things, so that my youth is renewed like the eagle’s. [Adapted from Psalm 103]

Thy kingdom come, thy will be done, on Earth as it is in Heaven…. This is where I go to my list—yes, I have a written list of the names of people I wish to pray for—and I ask God to illuminate every path, heal every wound, restore their innocence, and bless our relationships. I whisper their names and picture their faces, shining with the love of God. Sometimes I imagine them joining hands, one by one, in a great circle of light.

Give us this day, our daily bread…. Here I pray for my own challenges and difficulties and envision them being transformed.

And forgive us our debts, as we forgive our debtors…. Now I give my regrets, frustrations, and shortcomings wholeheartedly to God. If I feel that someone has wronged me, I try to see that person as God created him, as an innocent, expectant child. I realize that he too has been battered about by the world and the capriciousness of life, and I bless and forgive him. I might have to do this more than once… maybe even seventy times seven.

And lead us not into temptation, but deliver us from evil. May we be happy. May we be safe. May we be well. May we be peaceful and at ease. [Adapted from metta meditation]

For thine is the kingdom, and the power, and the glory forever…. I express my gratitude here. If I’m feeling snarly or put-upon, this too might require a list. Sometimes I have to start with something like, “God, I thank you that my pancreas is working properly. I’m grateful that my bedbug infestation is a thing of the distant past.” After I’ve thanked God for oxygen and sunlight, I can usually lift my mood with thoughts of dear and faithful friends, of disasters I’ve been rescued from, and of the ways I can be of genuine service to others.

Amen is usually translated as, “So be it,” but I don’t see it as an ending. Rather it signifies my intention to “pray without ceasing,” so that if my elevated spirit deflates after an hour or two I can slip back into prayerfulness without having to sit down and bow my head. So I translate Amen as “to be continued.”

My period of “formal” prayer requires about half an hour, and I’d be lying if I said that I pray this way every day. I can tell you that if I pray first thing in the morning, my day goes better than if I wake up agitated and feeling that I’m running behind. But if it’s the middle of the day before I get around to praying, then that time becomes my “morning,” a time of starting over, of being hopeful, and of renewal.

What’s your prayer ritual?

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Sister Alma Rose among the Meek and Lowly

praying-in-church

Sister Alma Rose surprises me on a daily basis. Hourly. By the minute, even, as in the case of Mrs. Ebenezer Grippe (which rhymes with trip, not with trippy, which Mrs. Grippe definitely is, in her austere and haughty way).

Having known Sister Alma Rose all my life, I saw her first as God’s right hand—as near perfection as might be possible for a great sequoia of a woman possessing apparently infinite patience, wisdom, compassion, and authority, and a comfortable quirkiness—her saving grace when it came to befriending small children, who might otherwise have found her a bit frightening.

As it was, by the age of seven or eight I was more often to be found on Sister Alma Rose’s grass-green porch, which wraps around her hilltop farmhouse like a woolen shawl on a winter night, than in my own home across the road. I went to my parents with cuts and scrapes and scratchy throats and runny noses, which they attended to with skill and love and a great many hugs and kisses. I went to Sister Alma Rose with wounds of the heart and yearnings of the spirit—existential growing pains unusual in one so young, I can see now. My parents and Sister Alma Rose behaved as if nothing were more natural than a first-grader’s proposing to become a Roman Catholic because her Presbyterian church had lost all reverence for the sacred and the mystical.

“The Prethbyterians,” I scornfully declared, not having learned to honor people’s chosen paths as different routes to the same destination; also not having learned to pronounce my esses, “treat God ath if he were a conthept, like Open Marriage or being a Whig.” Certainly I understood nothing of Whiggism and less than nothing of Open Marriage, but I knew my Presbyterians (who were typified by Mrs. Ebenezer Grippe) and they were a cynical lot. And the surprise was that Sister Alma Rose seemed to agree with me and offered a parody of Mrs. Ebenezer Grippe and her ilk in church saying the Lord’s Prayer, which clunked along like a wagon that got mired in mud at the end of each phrase:

Our FATH-er [pause],

who art in HEAV-en [longer pause, during which certain women ungently pinch or poke their spouses, occasionally rousing them to at least the appearance of paying attention],

hallowed-be-thy-name [or its alternative rendering, hollowed-be-thy-name; rushing here, momentum all but lost, bodies slackening as if in mute suggestion to the prayer leader that praying, even by rote, is well and good in moderation but enough is, after all, enough, and besides, the next part is unpalatable to hardworking, self-made men and women. But the prayer leader has a job to do and trudges gamely on like someone drained of energy after mowing half the lawn and finishing by sheer willpower].

Thy kingdom COME [full stop. Are we done yet?],

thy-will-be-done [mumbled in a hurry lest God hear and understand what the reluctant petitioner has said and, worse yet, identify the individual pray-ers and take them at their word, plucking them straightaway out of their comfortable four-bedroom homes, newly roofed and painted, water heaters recently replaced, brick patios with propane barbecues installed, and setting them down in vermin- and disease-infested refugee camps]…

on Earth, as it is in Heaven [absently, having forgotten the topic and becoming aware of a nagging pain in the lower back].

Give us this day our daily bread [with new robustness, since everybody knows what it means and likes to ask God for stuff, which must be okay because Jesus sanctions it, right here, right now, in his own prayer],

and forgive us our tresspasses [or debts. Now here the congregation divides, because there are those who know they’ve been bad and genuinely want forgiveness, and there are the others, who are pretty sure they haven’t done anything wrong, or at least anything that everybody else wouldn’t do in the same situation, such as not reporting the receipt of cash payments on their income-tax returns… and still others, whose minds have long since fled the sanctuary and are wondering if they remembered to thaw the chicken or who just really have to pee],

as we forgive those who have trespassed against us [or our debtors, and either way, this can’t be done in an offhand, Sunday-morning-prayer sort of way, because some things just stick in our craw—and what, exactly, is a craw? Is it that place in the throat where a shallow cough starts? And should I take the trouble now to forgive my mother-in-law for never having warmed up to me, when she’ll just keep dissing my housekeeping and criticizing my children? Can’t I wait until she’s done being an old snipe once and for all, and do one big, overarching forgiveness?].

And lead us not into temptation [which we have never understood, because isn’t it God’s job to shoo us away from temptation, and if God doesn’t do his job, then is it our fault if we eat an entire pineapple upside-down cake meant for the potluck supper and take a bag of doughnuts instead?]…

but deliver us from evil [resoundingly, because that’s one we can all get behind]…

for thine is the kingdom, and the power, and the glory forever [spoken fervently, and a little louder, because (a) the prayer is all but over and (b) we are aware that we have been less than attentive throughout and want to make up for it with this final burst of piety].

Amen [Omigosh, is that my cell phone that’s cheeping?].

Sweet Surrender

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Joy in cherry commercial

Joy in cherry commercial

Why I can say “Thy will be done”
and mean it

Sister Alma Rose and I were sitting on Sister Alma Rose’s big grass-green wraparound porch with Joy Brown, who has known Sister Alma Rose all her life, just as I have, except that Joy Brown is almost 30 and I am not even half that old.

Joy Brown used to live in Hilltop, but she moved to Los Angeles to be in films, and she got the first job she auditioned for, which was a pantyhose commercial, and then she was in a commercial for cherries, but she has risen fast in the “industry,” and she has just been cast as a supporting lead in a Major Motion Picture, which is a secret, and she can’t tell me who the famous stars are who are going to be in the movie, because everything is hush-hush, so I probably shouldn’t be telling you about it, but, oh well, too late now.

One of Joy's "publicity stills"

One of Joy's "publicity stills"

When she lived in Hilltop as a kid, Joy was one of Sister Alma Rose’s “disciples,” as I am, which, all that means is that we buy into Sister Alma Rose’s wisdom. She is our spiritual mentor, and we want to learn as much from her as we can, and besides we meet the most interesting and unusual people, most of them right here in Hilltop,who are Sister Alma Rose’s friends, plus she is fun to be with and she makes me feel safe, like Mama and Daddy do, only even more, because when she tells me that everything will be all right, she really knows, she’s not just saying that to make me feel better.

Me, Fanny McElroy

Me, Fanny McElroy

So Joy has come all the way from Hollywood to Hilltop just to talk to Sister Alma Rose. I am not officially part of the conversation, I just politely went to sit on the steps when I realized that Joy wanted to talk to Sister Alma Rose about something personal, though I can hear every word they say, and, no, I am not above eavesdropping, especially when I know that Sister Alma Rose and Joy wouldn’t really mind, they didn’t even ask me to leave.

Joy’s spiritual crisis

Joy's next job? Photo by Bidgee on Wikipedia

Joy's next job? Photo by Bidgee on Wikipedia

Joy is telling Sister Alma Rose that she is having a spiritual crisis because she can no longer say to God “thy will be done” and mean it. She has worked hard to get where she has got to in Hollywood, and people are always telling her how wonderful she is, which, she says, she is vain and insecure enough to lap that stuff up like a dog, and she is afraid that God’s will for her might not have anything to do with being a Major Motion Picture star, maybe God wants her to be one of those people who climb to the top of transmission towers to replace light bulbs, or something.

Without a word, Sister Alma Rose went into the kitchen and came right back out with something I had written once when Sister Alma Rose cured me of thinking I knew more about what was good for me than God did. And I did feel a little surge of pride, knowing that I had written something wise that Sister Alma Rose wanted to share.

Why I can say, ‘Thy will be done,’ and mean it

  • Because the best things in my life have been surprises
  • Because I really suck at manipulating and plotting
  • Because I can’t see around the corners
  • Because God can see around the corners
  • Because I know a pinprick’s worth of all there is to be known in the universe, but God knows all of it
  • Because if you are going where God (the Universe, Source, whatever) is leading you, there are signs and wonders along the way
  • Because if you are going in the wrong direction, you must constantly struggle
  • Because sometimes when I am running too fast in the wrong direction, I go off the edge of a cliff, like Wile E. Coyote, but Something catches me, and I do not make a Wile E. Coyote–shaped hole (or a Fanny McElroy–shaped hole) in the desert at the bottom of the cliff
  • Because you might pretend to love, but real love is a gift from the Divine
  • Because if God wants you to do something, God will, in God’s grace, make you passionate about that something, and it will be the thing that you do best and most want to do
  • Because there is total freedom in surrendering
  • Because when I try to Control Outcomes, (a) I get a bad headache and have to go to my room and lie down, and (b) it never works
  • Because I can’t possibly love myself as much as God does
  • Because sometimes it is the only power you have left

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